AUGUSTA, Maine — After Tuesday’s primaries in Maine, the campaign arm for Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives released a memo saying voters’ attention in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District “will now shift to the general election.”
In case you’re just starting to pay attention to the nationally targeted November rematch between U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, and Democrat Emily Cain, you should know that party operatives’ minds have been on this election since late 2014.
It may be Maine’s most prominent political race in 2016, with Republicans looking to boost Poliquin’s profile as a pragmatic deal-striker and Democrats pushing back using something Poliquin didn’t have in 2014 — a voting record.
The race between Cain and Poliquin will loom over Maine’s 2016 ballot. It didn’t in 2014.
Many see the 2014 result between Cain and Poliquin as, at least partially, a byproduct of other factors. Nationally, it was a bad year for Democrats, who lost 13 House seats, including the 2nd District for the first time in 20 years.
That helped Republican Gov. Paul LePage win re-election over then-U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat. The largely rural 2nd District was key in LePage’s win and the defeat of a referendum to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping.
Still, the Poliquin-Cain race was the most expensive House race in Maine history, with the campaigns and outside groups spending a combined $6.7 million. This year’s race will smash it.
The candidates raised $3.8 million as of May, led by Poliquin’s $2.4 million. But party campaign arms have already reserved more than $2 million in fall TV advertising time.
The presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump will be the biggest campaign on the ballot. Maine will take other big votes, including on expanding gun background checks and legalizing marijuana, but the 2nd District won’t be an also-ran.
LePage’s race drove highest-in-the-nation turnout here in 2014, but it’ll be higher in 2016 because of the presidential race. Depending on how that plays out, it could be a better environment for Cain.
But Poliquin is the incumbent, and he can point to examples of bipartisan work.
Holding office is powerful. House incumbents were elected in 95 percent of races in 2014. In Maine, only Republican Rep. James Longley Jr. of the 1st District in 1996 was ousted in the last 38 years.
Poliquin, a Harvard-educated former New York City investment manager, couldn’t be more different than his predecessor: Michaud is a labor Democrat who never went to college and worked as a forklift operator at a paper mill.
But Poliquin’s win, which came after he ran a 2014 primary to the right of opponent Kevin Raye, gave him a platform to pick up some of Michaud’s causes and meld them into his longtime pro-job message.
Nowhere has that been more evident than on trade. Breaking with most Republicans, he announced he will vote against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, calling it “not in the best interest of our workers and their families.”
He has also continued Michaud’s work as a chief defender of New Balance, which employs 900 people in Maine. On Thursday, he helped beat back a Republican attempt to strip an amendment enforcing a federal law requiring military athletic shoes to be made in the U.S.
A cynic can dismiss this as Poliquin taking positions necessary to placate the district, but it means that Cain can’t engage him on one of her party’s core issues in Maine. That has power.
The flip side of incumbency is that Poliquin also has a record to attack, and Cain will highlight party-line votes and perceived inconsistencies.
Poliquin’s record is more complicated than kumbaya bipartisanship. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pored through it, posting a public 400-page opposition research file in April.
They didn’t have that luxury in 2014. To that point, Poliquin only held office as the Maine state treasurer, so except for remarks, he hadn’t weighed in on the finer points of government.
By contrast, Cain had spent a decade in the Maine Legislature. Republicans unearthed one obscure bill she sponsored in 2007 that would have recorded the weight of schoolchildren to get better data on obesity, for example.
So far, two Democratic attacks in particular have drawn some blood on Poliquin.
He spent much of 2015 railing against the Export-Import Bank, which gives loans to foreign buyers of American goods and lapsed last year amid pushing from conservatives who say it distorts free markets.
But in September, General Electric said that because of the lapse, it was going to export future work that could have supported 500 jobs at a Bangor facility and others in the across the nation. Democrats hammered him on it.
Poliquin said that he never opposed the bank in its entirety, but he wanted to root out fraud there, and he voted for reauthorizing it in October.
In May, Poliquin also took flak for switching his vote in the House to oppose a provision aiming to prevent LGBT discrimination in companies that get federal contracts. Democrats pounced on him as one of seven Republicans to signal a yes vote before switching to no.
Poliquin defended the vote by saying he supported language that exempted religious institutions and he later voted for a version that had that exemption. But Democrats have hit him for flip-flopping on the issue.
This is all proof that some campaign issues matter and some don’t.